Get unlimited digital access to baltimoresun.com. $0.99 for 4 weeks.
News Opinion

The curse of Redskins

See if this makes sense to you:

For years, I've argued with certain African-American people about their insistence upon using the so-called N-word which, to my ears, is, inalterably, a statement of self-loathing. They say I don't understand. They say the word no longer means what it has always meant. They say it's just a friendly fraternal greeting.

I say one cannot arbitrarily decide that a word -- especially an old and bloodstained word -- suddenly means something other than what it always has. I say that while language does change over time, it doesn't do so because a few of us want it to or tell it to. And I say that if I call you an "idiot," but say that "idiot" now means "genius," you will be no less insulted.

Does that seem logical? If so, then perhaps you can understand my impatience with people who insist on defending the Washington football team whose nickname is a racial slur.

The latest is NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. Last week, he responded to a letter from members of the Congressional Native American Caucus, questioning the appropriateness of the name "Redskins." That name, wrote Mr. Goodell, "is a unifying force that stands for strength, courage, pride and respect." The team took the name in 1933, he noted, to honor then-coach William "Lone Star" Dietz, who was reputedly (it is a matter of historical dispute) an American Indian.

"Neither in intent nor use was the name ever meant to denigrate Native Americans or offend any group," he wrote. In other words, we have changed the meaning. It no longer means what it has always meant.

As it happens, Mr. Goodell's letter follows a novel -- though ultimately failed -- effort earlier this year by the Michigan Department of Civil Rights to ban Indian team names and mascots at primary and secondary schools. The complaint MDCR filed with the Education Department argued that such things are not merely insulting, but damaging. It cited the work of Stephanie Fryberg, an assistant professor at the University of Arizona who has studied the effects of the team names and imagery on Native American students.

She has found empirical proof that those names and imagery lead to lowered self-esteem and sense of community worth among American Indian kids. They also damage aspirations and heighten anxiety and depression.

In other words, seeing their people reduced to mascots is toxic to Indian children. And if the names and images in general are damaging, how much more harmful is "Redskins"?

That name, after all, was never neutral but was, rather, a hateful epithet hurled by people who were stealing from and committing genocide against those they saw as savage and subhuman. So calling a football team the "Washington Redskins" as a way of honoring an Indian makes precisely as much sense as calling a soccer team "The Warsaw K---s" as a way of honoring a Jew.

Fans of franchises bearing Indian names often resist changing them out of sentiment. Owners, meanwhile, are loath to tamper with lucrative trademarks.

That's understandable. But it is also short-sighted.

You can delude yourself all you want. Things are what they are, and as Rick Perry learned in 2011 when he was called to answer for a certain inconveniently named rock, this nation's ugly racial past has a way of poking through the polite lies and evasions we use to prettify history and justify ourselves. So it is with Washington's football team and its nickname.

This is not about honor and even less about "strength, courage, pride and respect." It is rather, about moral integrity, intellectual honesty and the immutable weight of certain words. Whether we choose to acknowledge it, or never do, doesn't change the fact:

"Redskins" is a curse word.

Leonard Pitts, a Maryland resident, is a columnist for The Miami Herald. Readers may contact him via email at lpitts@miamiherald.com.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
Related Content
  • Forced sterilization still happens in America
    Forced sterilization still happens in America

    An investigative report into California's prisons found hundreds of inmates had been sterilized, and many said they were pressured to consent

  • Street policing doesn't belong in school
    Street policing doesn't belong in school

    In recent months, there has been a flood of video evidence of police violence in our communities. Earlier this week, a gut-wrenching video surfaced that shows a school police officer violently attacking three young girls inside one of our middle schools. The incident starts when one of the...

  • Look to animals to cure Ebola
    Look to animals to cure Ebola

    GlaxoSmithKline and Merck will test new Ebola vaccines in West Africa this month. They're racing to cure this disease that causes severe hemorrhagic fever in humans and other mammals. To date, Ebola has claimed more than 8,600 lives and infected more than 20,000 people in Sierra Leone,...

  • Why Black History Month?
    Why Black History Month?

    Every February, college professors like myself are tasked with reminding students and the general public of the significance of Black History Month. Undoubtedly, many people understand the potential value behind a designated month dedicated to this part of American history. Our country is...

  • Lexington Market overhaul [Poll]
    Lexington Market overhaul [Poll]
  • Mr. Obama's 529 brouhaha
    Mr. Obama's 529 brouhaha

    Rarely does a president flip-flop on an initiative presented in the State of the Union address as quickly as Barack Obama did this week. He reversed himself on 529 college savings plans on Tuesday, which was just seven days after his speech to the nation. Such a political miscalculation is...

  • Defeating Boko Haram
    Defeating Boko Haram

    The bloody attacks in Paris this month that left 20 people dead, including the three attackers, riveted the world's attention on the growing threat Islamist extremist groups pose to the democracies of Western Europe. Yet even as the French people were mourning their loss, an even more...

  • Another snow job
    Another snow job

    The network meteorologists barely had time to come up for air while "forecasting" the latest snowstorm non-disaster. Politicians, fearing what might happen to their approval numbers if a blizzard hit, went on TV to announce they were taking proactive measures. New York City Mayor Bill...

Comments
Loading